Hopefully, eight cheetahs (five males and three females) will travel 8,405 kilometers (5,222 miles) from South Africa to a new home in India’s vast national parks in November.
The world’s fastest terrestrial animal is back, more than half a century after it became extinct in India.
“Finally, we have the resources and habitat to reintroduce cats,” says Yadvendradev Jhala, president of the Indian Wildlife Research Institute and one of the experts responsible for this effort. This is the first time in the world that large carnivores have moved from continent to continent for protection, he says.
Featuring a black-spotted coat and teardrops, the cheetah is a smooth animal that roams the grasslands at speeds of up to 70 mph (112 km) to catch its prey. Cats are also highly athletic animals, and when they go to kill, they break, crouch, and jump in.
Today, the majority of the world’s 7,000 cheetahs are found in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. Endangered cats were reportedly the last to be witnessed in India between 1967 and 1968, but by 1900 their numbers had declined significantly.
Three sites in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan (national parks and two wildlife sanctuaries) have identified cheetah reintroductions, Dr. Jara said.
The first eight cats will live in Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh, which is rich in prey such as antelopes and wild boars. Wildlife experts favor the tiger sanctuary on Mukundra Hill in Rajasthan as a promising habitat.
The world’s first captive cheetah was born in India during the reign of Jahangir, the emperor of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century. His father, Akbar, recorded that there were 10,000 cheetahs in his time, 1,000 of which were in court.
Animals were imported for sports in the 20th century. Studies have found that between 1799 and 1968 there were at least 230 cheetahs in the wild. This is the only large mammal that has become extinct since independence.
Cats have become extinct in India due to hunting, habitat loss and insufficient prey (blackbuck, gazelles, hares). During British rule, cheetahs invaded villages and killed livestock and were extinct by bounty hunters.
India has been working on the reintroduction of animals since the 1950s. Efforts in the 1970s took place in Iran, which had about 300 cheetahs at the time, but failed after Iran’s Shah was dismissed and negotiations stopped.
Reintroduction of animals is always risky. But they are not uncommon. In 2017, four cheetahs were reintroduced to Malawi. In Malawi, cats became extinct in the late 1980s. That number has now increased to 24.
According to experts, the good news is that cheetahs are adaptable animals.
In South Africa, where 60% of cheetahs live, cats live in deserts, dune forests, grasslands, forests and mountains.
They are found in the Northern Cape, where temperatures drop to -15 ° C, and in Malawi, where mercury rises to 45 ° C.
“As long as there is enough prey, habitat is not a limiting factor. They survive and breed in dense predator environments and coexist with lions, leopards, spotted hyenas and African wild dogs,” said Cheetah conservationist Vincent. Van der Melwe told me in South Africa.
But there are other concerns. Cheetahs often enter farmland to hunt livestock, causing human-animal clashes. More importantly, cats are targeted by competing predators.
“It’s a delicate animal,” says Dr. Jhala. “They value speed and avoid collisions.”
In South Africa, lions and hyenas account for about half of the deaths of wild cheetahs. Even herds of wild dogs are known to attack them.
“Cheetahs can overtake large cats, but it is often difficult to protect their prey. Cheetah pups are often taken away by large cats such as lions. There is, “says wildlife historian Mahesh Langarajan.
That’s why cheetahs thrive in fenced reserves, experts say. “Due to habitat loss and retaliatory killings, the population of unfenced cheetahs is declining,” says van der Melve. “India’s protected areas are almost fenceless, suggesting the possibility of human-wildlife clashes.”
When Van der Melve visited India in April and evaluated potential reintroduction sites, he discovered that Kuno National Park was a favorable habitat for cats. The 730 square kilometers (282 square miles) park has a mixed forest and grassland habitat, much like where cheetahs thrive in South Africa. I’m worried about leopards, but there are no lions in the park.
Van der Melve believes that a better home for cats in India is the fenced tiger sanctuary on the Mukundra hills, where the density of animals that can attack cheetahs is low. “In my intuition, I think this is definitely a preparation for success. It can be used for breeding cheetahs and surplus animals can be used to regenerate and breathe into other protected areas,” he says. I will.
However, India’s leading nature maintenance activists are still skeptical of this idea.
They say cheetahs need a wide home range.
According to Dr. K Ulhas Karanth, one of India’s top conservation experts, these habitats need to be “no people, no dogs, no leopards or tigers” with enough wild prey for cats. there is. He says most of India’s former cheetah habitat is shrinking due to pressure on the land.
“The purpose of the reintroduction must be to increase the viable population of dozens of cheetahs breeding in the wild. Just throwing a few animals into the park doesn’t help. Is a fateful project, “he says.
However, wildlife experts such as Dr. Jara still have a bright view of the return of “flagship species” to the Indian grasslands. “Reintroduction requires at least 20 animals,” he says. “We are considering importing 40 cheetahs over the next five years.”